By Larry Fine
SAN FRANCISCO (Reuters) - Former quarterback Troy Aikman says he is fortunate to have gotten out of the NFL in good health as news of brain trauma in recently deceased former players is mounting, and he knows others are suffering.
"I know there's people that I played with and against and those before me that are really battling some tough times as a result we assume from having played the game," the three-time Super Bowl champion with the Dallas Cowboys told Reuters on Thursday.
"It obviously is a real concern for our game," the Hall of Famer added.
An autopsy confirmed that former Minnesota Vikings linebacker Fred McNeill was suffering from chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE) when he died last year at 63, CNN reported on Thursday.
Two days before, a specialist said a study of former Oakland Raiders quarterback Ken Stabler's brain following his death last year showed signs of CTE, which is closely associated with the repeated head blows common in boxing, hockey, football and other contact sports.
Stabler's brain was the 90th of 94 former NFL players studied by Boston University researchers to show indications of CTE.
"It's a violent game. Big physical guys colliding and creating these collisions with the head injuries. As much as the league has done to make the game safer, I saw that this year the concussions were way up," Aikman said.
Last week the National Football League said there were 182 reported concussions this past season, a rise of 58 percent over 2014 after two seasons of declining incidents.
Jeff Miller, NFL vice president for health and safety policy, said the league was exploring reasons for the hike.
"The number of players screened for concussions doubled this year," Miller told reporters at the Super Bowl Media Center suggesting increased vigilance as one possible factor.
Miller noted the league has instituted nearly 40 rule changes to cut down potential head injuries in recent years and believed that greater attention to the problem by officials and players themselves probably contributed to the rise.
He noted increased numbers of medical staff at games keeping eyes trained for signs of concussion, and that players were self-reporting symptoms to team physicians.
"That's a positive trend relating to the culture change," said Miller at an NFL display of research initiatives aimed at improving player safety.
"Those are positive developments. Players that need the care from suffering those injuries are getting the care."
The NFL Players Association seemed to agree.
"When we have players who now step up and self-report, we take that as positive news that players are now empowered, wanting to know what is going on and taking steps to protect themselves," NFLPA executive director DeMaurice Smith said.
Executive committee member Matt Hasselbeck, quarterback for the Indianapolis Colts, said: "One thing we're proud of, we tried to change the culture of our game.
"When I got into the game it was a no-no to be honest with the medical professionals on the sideline. You felt like you were a wimp if you were honest with the team doctor."
Aikman, who just turned 34 when he retired after 12 seasons, recounted a scary incident from his own playing days.
"I had two significant head injuries. One was my rookie year. I was knocked out for 10 minutes and then one was in the 1993 NFC championship game against the 49ers," he said.
"Still to this day I have no recollection of having played in that game. I have complete amnesia from the game. I stayed the night in the hospital and played the next week in the Super Bowl."
"It's obviously a different time. Now if you say you couldn't remember having played in the game the week before, I don't think there's any way I'd be allowed to play in the Super Bowl seven days later. Just tells you how far we've come."
(Editing by Steve Keating.)